Asbestos-related death toll could become epidemic within decades


The fact that many thousands of Welsh children attend schools at which asbestos is present has again highlighted the risks of this highly dangerous material.

asbestos hazard in Welsh Schools - WalesEvery day, the number of youngsters exposed to asbestos fibres in items as common as floor and ceiling tiles exceeds 377,000. So worrying does the NASUWT find these figures that the teaching union and legal experts are calling for a rapid and comprehensive programme of removal by all local authorities.

Of particular concern are the rising numbers of deaths from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer which attacks the lining of the lungs and about which comparatively little is known.

The risk posed by the asbestos itself is relatively low provided it is undamaged and managed properly. However, if the materials which contain it are breached and fibres are released, the asbestos becomes exceptionally hazardous.

Diseases caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres lead to some 4,000 UK deaths every year, while the Health and Safety Executive expects that by 2050 an asbestos-related disease epidemic will kill as many as 90,000.

Managing asbestos in schools falls primarily to head teachers, with the process overseen by local authorities. According to Phillip Gower, a partner with Simpson Millar LLP solicitors who specialises in Asbestos Illness Claims, every school must by law keep a register of the asbestos in its buildings, together with the implementation of a risk-reduction management plan.

"However, the wayward nature of local authority asbestos management suggests councils are confused as to the precise terms of the asbestos regulations and what officials can and cannot do," Phillip says.

"Looking randomly at the numbers in the education sector alone, teacher mortality has increased year-on-year since mesothelioma occupational records began in 1980," notes Phillip. "Given the gravity of these and many other sets of statistics relating to asbestos in schools, one would expect more concerted action at local authority level."

Some authorities appear not to grasp the difference between an asbestos register, which defines where the material is located, and a management plan which charts roles and duties, how risk is communicated to staff and when audits and reviews will take place.

"The plan should be similar to a health and safety policy, only with provisions and objectives which are specific to asbestos management" says Phillip.

"It's certainly something we'd like to see implemented at every school, with maintenance staff, contractors, teachers, students and others likely to come into contact with the fibres given proper awareness training wherever feasible."

"It's also vital that any element which contains asbestos is removed without delay."

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